By the time New York City Ballet made its first, now-annual pilgrimage to the nation’s capital in 1974, the company had become a kind of America’s Team on the shoulders of the 20th century’s two most significant American choreographers – George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
So it seems only fair that last night’s opening at the Kennedy Center featured three of its four pieces by one of them. Those who’ve followed and loved New York City Ballet are pretty much guaranteed to love the look and feel of dances created by Mr. B and Mr. R. With one foot in classical ballet and one (or two) in more modern forms, the four pieces are a persuasive argument for why an admirer might feel that way.
Balanchine, who founded the company in 1933 with non-dancer Lincoln Kirstein, has been dead since 1983, yet his best works remain vibrant and feel extremely contemporary. They somehow absorb the ballet styles of long-ago France and Italy, then find a way to weave in influences from Soviet Russia and all forms of American popular dance. In that, Balanchine finds near-perfect common ground with Robbins, who on Broadway and film drew upon every moment of professional and amateur American dance he’d ever seen. Witness West Side Story and On the Town, in particular.
Balanchine was responsible for half the numbers performed in NYCB’s Program A, with a Program B later this week devoted to new or at least more recent works. His Kammermusik No. 2 composed by Paul Hindemith is neoclassical, with a nonstop piano solo performed here by Stephen Gosling. Picture water rushing over the stones of a brook after a heavy rain. If that’s not what the sheet music to this looks like, it’s certainly what it sounds like.
Abi Stafford, Teresa Reichlen, Joseph Gordon and Russell Janzen stood out among the young dancers trying to “be” the brook, or just keep up.
Balanchine’s program-closing Symphony in C has quite a back story, especially being composed by Georges Bizet when he was a 17-year-old student of Charles Gounod’s. The score, with nary a hint of Bizet’s later exotic Pearl Fishers or the darkly passionate Carmen, managed to be lost for years. Balanchine heard of it, choreographed it in only two weeks and debuted it, first in Paris and then as part of NYCB’s very first program, in 1948.
The piece is notable for a number of things. As with Balanchine’s iconic work Jewels, this requires costumes that shimmer and sparkle, thanks to an assist from Swarovski. It also organizes itself into four movements, each with a main couple in a pas de deux, two secondary couples with substantial stage time and then a very large gathering of young female dancers in white tutus. By the time the finale brings everyone onstage together, it’s a virtual convention of movement – mostly fast movement, since three of the pieces are marked “allegro.”
As for Robbins, his contribution to the evening might have been the audience’s favorite, though we’re thinking Program B’s Something to Dance About may carry home that honor by week’s end. It will be hard to compete with a medley of Robbins’ best steps from West Side Story, On the Town, Gypsy, The King and I, Billion Dollar Baby, Peter Pan, Funny Girl and Fiddler on the Roof.
That said, Opus 19, The Dreamer, set to a lush and melodic score by Prokofiev, proves the evening’s clearest love story. Gonzalo Garcia and Sterling Hyltin shine with the strong, striking movements Robbins created for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride in 1974. The style is powerful enough to evoke deep passions, without the nobility mixed with sensual reticence that was old-style ballet.
Program A’s opening number, titled Composer’s Holiday is remarkable unto itself, choreographed by 18-year-old Gianna Reisen, the youngest person to ever be given an NYCB commission. Appropriately, this is the most contemporary of the program’s works (though it clearly required lots of ballet to get there), all set to music composed by Lukas Foss and conducted by Daniel Capps, with impressive violin by Arturo Delmoni and piano by Susan Walters. Even on evenings devoted to the ghosts of NYCB’s bright past, the company is gazing toward its bright future.